Friday, February 9, 2018
February 9, 2018: Famous Boy Scouts: Alfred Kinsey and Bill Gates
[On February 8th, 1910, Chicago publisher William D. Boyce incorporated the Boys Scouts of America, a US version of the international Scouting organization. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boyce and a handful of other figures connected to the Boy Scouts, leading up to a weekend post on the Scouts in the 21st century.]
On two Scouts who changed the world, and whether the Scouts have changed with it.
As a boy growing up in New Jersey, Alfred Kinsey became one of the earliest Boy Scouts, joining the first troop that formed in his community (not long after the organization’s 1910 founding) and working his way to Eagle Scout by 1913 (making him one of the first Eagle Scouts). His scouting experiences likely contributed to his burgeoning interests in biology, zoology, and botany, passions that led him to attend Maine’s Bowdoin College (as an double major in Biology and Psychology) and then Harvard’s agricultural college the Bussey Institution (receiving his PhD in Biology). It’s fair to say that the youthful scouting experiences of Bill Gates, who worked his way from Cub Scout to Boy Scout during his childhood in the Seattle area in the 1960s, were not quite as directly formative for his future professional life and identity. But Gates has nonetheless talked at length, in that case while receiving the highest scouting honor the Silver Buffalo Award, about what the “overall experience of challenging” himself during his years in the Scouts contributed to his perspective and identity.
Whatever the differences in their particular experiences of scouting, there’s no doubt that both Kinsey and Gates dramatically influenced and fundamentally changed American and human society, well beyond their chosen professions. That is, of course Kinsey contributed greatly to evolutions in scientific fields like psychology and biology, while Gates did so in technological arenas including computing and the digital revolution. But both men also and even more significantly influenced crucial aspects of how we think and talk about some of the most enduring elements of society and identity: Kinsey reshaped our conversations about and understandings of sex and sexuality; and Gates likewise revised those around technology’s presence and role in our lives and world. While of course both their personal choices (especially Kinsey’s) and professional practices (especially Gates’s) can and should be considered carefully and critiqued (or even condemned) where appropriate, there is in any case no denying just how much these two have helped shape American and human life over the last half-century. Whatever else Americans have shared over those decades, personal lives and personal computers have been integral parts for most of us, and these two men contributed as much to them as any individuals have.
Changes in society and the world don’t necessarily produce corresponding changes in particular organizations or institutions, however, and I would argue that the Boy Scouts have embraced many of Gates’ effects while famously and troublingly resisting Kinsey’s. As Gates noted in the same Silver Buffalo speech, the Scouts now offer merit badges in such subjects as programming, digital technology, and nuclear science (among many other additions), reflecting the new world in which these young people are growing up and the kinds of skills that they will need to navigate it. Yet when it comes to sexuality, the Scouts for many decades consistently and vociferously resisted changing along with society and the world—fighting tooth to nail to resist such changes as gay scout leaders, gay and transgender Scouts, and the like. To be clear and to their credit, the Scouts have gradually shifted on each of those issues, and as of last year have even begun to allow girls to join (perhaps an even more radical shift, given the organization’s name). Yet nevertheless, comparing Gates and Kinsey allows us to see with even more clarity how much the Scouts have resisted Kinsey’s kinds of social and cultural changes, compared to their quick and thorough embrace of the kinds linked to Gates. Perhaps an indication that they, and we, still have even more to learn from Kinsey and his colleagues.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Scouting histories or stories you’d share?